The Yazidi Genocide in Iraq by Michele Buscher

Michele BuscherRoughly seven hours prior to my composing this blog, a report was disseminated across the Internet offering what is being called a first-hand account of Mosul women’s prison currently in Iraq where possibly thousands of Yazidi, Christian and Muslim women are being held.  After these women are rounded up and sent to various prisons across Iraq and parts of Syria, they are given a choice to either abandon their religious tradition and convert to Islam or be sold to ISIS soldiers for roughly 30 dollars whereafter they will be raped, forced into marriage, and in some cases will later be tortured to death.  After the women have been sold they are forced to call their families and offer detailed descriptions of what has just occurred.  This sort of psychological warfare is why many UN aid workers are calling ISIS more diabolical than al-Qaeda.

Let me back up here. A couple of years ago, while researching religious freedom abuses in Iraq, I came across a small religious group called the Yazidi.  Having never heard of this religious sect before, I took interest in why the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF, was highlighting specifically this group, naming religious persecution by Sunni militants in Iraq against the Yazidi as a reason for citing Iraq as a CPC, or Country of Particular Concern, making Iraq uniquely vulnerable to U.S. government sanctions.  The Yazidi have been given the unfortunate nickname, “Devil Worshippers” in Iraq because their God is known as both Malak Taus and Shayton (or Shaitan), the latter meaning Devil in Arabic.  The Yazidi are known to be highly secretive regarding their religious praxis which allegedly incorporates elements of Islam, Judaism and Christianity; hence, there is much confusion about who the Yazidi are and what they stand for.  Articles from the BBC’s World Report and the Daily Mail in the UK have both pointed out that one of the few known cornerstones of the Yazidi faith is that one cannot be converted to the faith – one must be born a Yazidi and one may not ever denounce one’s faith.  If a Yazidi woman were to claim another religion, she would be expelled from her community not only for the rest of her life, but eternally.  This should help elucidate why imprisoned Yazidi women refuse to convert, choosing instead rape, slavery and ultimately death.

Now, who and what is ISIS and why is ISIS targeting the Yazidi among other minority groups in Iraq and Syria?  ISIS or IS represents the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  The leader of this militia goes by the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  A religious fundamentalist, al-Baghdadi is fighting for the systematic removal of the Yazidi along with all other religious minority groups in Iraq and Syria.  ISIS controls major cities on both sides of the Iraqi border which have allowed them to mobilize and procure enough weaponry to arm their fight across the entire region.  The Huffington Post has reported several incidents of Sunni Muslim insurgents celebrating mass murders of the Yazidi and other minority religious groups by shooting massive weaponry in the air and parading through the streets.

The United Nations, along with Human Rights Watch, released a statement calling the current systematic murder of Yazidi men and the imprisonment and rape of Yazidi women, “religious extermination” and an “ongoing genocide”.  An official spokesperson for Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry has said that, “the terrorists by now consider [the women] sex slaves and they have vicious plans for them…these women are going to be used in demeaning ways by those terrorists to satisfy their animalistic urges in a way that contradicts all the [sic] human and Islamic values.”    The U.S. and France have been delivering aid to those minority groups that have fled to and are attempting to survive the harsh Mt. Sinjar climate.  U.S. drone attacks along with missile strikes have flooded the areas where the ISIS militia is fighting.  But is this enough?

The U.S. has an inarguably complicated political history with Iraq and many, including some UN representatives, wonder if the U.S. and its allies are truly doing enough to help the Yazidi women. There are multiple reports across social media, claiming family members in Iraq and in the U.S. are receiving phone calls from female relatives who have managed somehow to retain their cell phones.  The women detail similar accounts of being captured, separated from their husbands and children, forced onto trucks and taken to abandoned schools and mosques.  Some have witnessed other women being sold in the marketplace to ISIS men.  One woman describes witnessing a pregnant woman being shot on sight for refusing to get into a truck headed to the now infamous Mosul prison.  Certainly, the U.S. has many decisions to make regarding how and to what extent the U.S. government should help the plight of a religious minority in Iraq.  The Yazidi community is being targeted directly, but so are many other religious minority groups in Iraq.  The Yazidi specifically have been targeted by Islamic extremists for centuries in Iraq and many Yazidi have found refuge in Syria, until now.  Women are undoubtedly being targeted by ISIS in this genocide as women are so often the target in religious conflict across the globe.

The USCIRF has named Iraq a CPC since 2008 and has detailed the ongoing Yazidi religious persecution in almost every annual report.  What more can the U.S. government and U.S. allies do for the minority citizens of Iraq?  They must take the threat of religious persecution seriously and understand that when religious freedom is not equally protected and valued by the government then basic, universal human rights are equally disvalued.  When women’s rights are not protected, basic human rights are not protected.

Michele Buscher, PhD, received her degree from the Claremont Graduate University in 2013. Her PhD is in Religious Studies with an emphasis on Theology, Ethics and Culture.  Her dissertation titled, Commission Impossible: The International Religious Freedom Act and its Impact on U.S. Foreign Policy with Particular Reference to Iraq and Burma, 1999-2012 explores the relationship between the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 and current U.S. foreign policy abroad.  She is interested in the role religion plays in the development of U.S. foreign policy particularly in the Middle East and how this contributes to human rights.  Additionally, her scholarly interests include Feminist Theologies and Modern Catholic Studies.  She received her BA from Seattle University in Creative Writing and her MA from Union Theological Seminary in Theological Studies.  Michele works at Pitzer College as the Language & Cultural Lab Coordinator, Instructor for the International Fellows Program and Program Coordinator for the Kobe Women’s University visiting Cultural Program.

Categories: Human Rights, Violence Against Women

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10 replies

  1. This is a horrific story and I doubt it will be solved by the US entering into a generation long war in the Middle East. More likely US intervention in the form of war will make things worse–my opinion. What sort of US intervention do you suggest? I believe Christians are also becoming targets of Isil.


  2. I found this bit of information on Wikepedia a few weeks ago.

    “The tale of the Yazidis’ origin found in the Black Book gives them a distinctive ancestry and expresses their feeling of difference from other races. Before the roles of the sexes were determined, Adam and Eve quarreled about which of them provided the creative element in the begetting of children. Each stored their seed in a jar which was then sealed. When Eve’s was opened it was full of insects and other unpleasant creatures, but inside Adam’s jar was a beautiful boychild. This lovely child, known as son of Jar grew up to marry a houri and became the ancestor of the Yazidis. Therefore, the Yazidis are regarded as descending from Adam alone, while other humans are descendants of both Adam and Eve.[65]”

    I would surmise that the Yazidi religion is extremely patriarchal and that women’s bodies are viewed as shameful and requiring control by their fathers and husbands. Of course having patriarchal religious beliefs is not justification for genocide. Nor is it the “reason” that motivates Isil. (Nor is the “reason” given by Isil considered “Muslim” by many Muslims. The Ottoman Empire was Islamic and it practiced tolerance of other religions at a time when Christian Europe was burning Jews, “heretics,” and witches.)

    Mary Daly suggested that genocide is one of the 3 members of the Unholy Trinity of patriarchy which are Rape, Genocide, and War. I happen to agree with her and therefore view freedom to practice one’s religion as only one right among many. The freedom not to be categorized as dirty and shameful in a patriarchal religion is another. But that is a story for another analysis on another day and in another blog.


    • Thanks for this post, which is very informative. I agree that “Women are undoubtedly being targeted by ISIS in this genocide as women are so often the target in religious conflict across the globe.” I find this sentence disturbing, however, in that it calls a terrorist organization by the name of a Goddess who is still worshiped today. ISIL (as Carol says above) or IS are acronyms that do not raise this issue.


  3. This is a very complicated and serious situation. What, if anything, is being done to get the women and children out of those countries?


  4. Carol, thanks for mentioning Daly. She was right about many, many things.

    Let us please remember that the Islamic State group is not the only extremist group. Don’t forget Boko Haram. Islam is a religion of peace, yes, but why has it spawned so many awful men? Ditto the other standard-brand religions? I recently read about a Christian preacher who referred to women as “penis homes.” Branches of his church (I think it’s in Washington state) are shutting down. But where will those people go? How do we escape from radical, extreme, fundamentalist patriarchy?

    Michele, thanks for writing about the Yazidi.


    • Barbara– that was Mark Driscoll you are mentioning. He is VILE and worth a blogpost on FAR.He has legitimately changed the face of Christianity in the US and his fall is worth discussing.

      I’ve been chewing on the title extremist lately and why it has become the word that allows groups to distance themselves from the ties that they do have to these groups and patriarchal structures. Your question is one I ask myself all the time– its what led me to religious studies– “Why has ‘it’ spawned such awful, unspeakable things (for me at the time it was Catholicism)? While I acknowledge that a good part of participants in major religions do not participate in some of the horrors we have witnessed as of late, I also do not think people get a free pass at washing their hands clean of being part of a patriarchal institution that has the foundations/theology/writings that allow for extremism to happen.

      In my own traditions (of my youth–not anymore), I would find it absurd to pretend that it was “not my Catholicism” that participated in the Crusades, covered up the child abuse scandals, allows for the spread of AIDS in Africa to continue to this day and still continues to fight against the rights of women/minorities/LGBTQ all over the world . Can I label those who do and did these things extremists/awful people (or today CONSERVATIVE): Yes. But are they Catholic? Yes. Are they just as legitimately practicing Catholics as those wonderful guys who attend PRIDE every year from St. Monicas here in LA? Yes.

      This is not to say that I do not think Islam is a religion that encourages peace. Not at all. But I find it very hard to swallow the cries of those who say that the young men and women who are committing these acts of horror do not identify as practitioners of Islam. They do– and those who shunning them and washing their hands clean of them does nothing for the world. I have watched my tradition shun their worst and all it does is put evil in a closet instead of confronting it outright– and things in the dark fester…

      Also, I think of Daly quite a bit lately as well…


  5. I want to reiterate what Judith Maeryam said above. We Goddess feminists find it very difficult to see one of the most long-worshipped goddesses maligned when Her name is used to designate the recent, infamous Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. I find it especially ironic that people have used Her name, since the goddess Isis was a part of the ancient Egyptian pantheon. Let’s call it ISIL. That sounds as ugly as ISIL is.

    There was a recent blog post on Tikkun Daily from Gen Vaughn about this topic. (She’s the creator of the Gift Economy concept based on a reading of matriarchal cultures and how they operate). If Tikkun can change how they speak about this group, so can we.


  6. Thank you, Michele, for educating us about this topic! It’s horrifying. Have you seen suggestions of responses that make sense to you?


  7. Hi Everyone,

    Thank you so much for the lively discussion. I focused here on the Yazidi, although there are several minority religious traditions being targeted in this war propagated by ISIL: Christian, Baha’i, Sabean Mandean. The specific targeting of Yazidi women in this genocide is what motivated me to write exclusively about their struggle. The British, French and Dutch along with the U.S. are mobilizing by sending aid. The U.S’s relationship with Iraq is incredibly complex and the current situation is complex and horrible. the USCIRF has repeatedly called for sanctions on Iraq and the U.S. largely ignores its suggestions and recommendations for peace building. Thank you again for your informative commentary!



  8. Coming in the midst of Banned Book Week, this commentary illustrates the fact that even in the 21st century humanity is not as evolved as it believes itself to be.


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